URBAN FORESTRY/City develops software, available to all
Local governments looking for an inexpensive way to monitor their tree inventories can tip their hats to Springfield, Mass. The city’s Parks Department has developed an automated tracking system that is available to any community for free.
Called the Mobile Community Tree Inventory System, the product is the outgrowth of Springfield’s own difficulty in monitoring its trees. “In a city with 50,000 trees, it’s tough to know where the trees are that need help,” says Shaun Phelan, director of information services for Springfield’s Parks Department. “Developing a management plan requires inventorying the trees — where they are and their specific characteristics. It’s time-consuming and can be very expensive.”
As manager of the city’s tree maintenance program, the Parks Department had no standard method for tracking its trees and relied on residents to notify staff when trees needed attention. Callers reported problems, and parks staff entered the information in a mainframe spreadsheet program. The process was time-consuming and inefficient, leaving little time to prioritize maintenance.
It also was inaccurate, Phelan notes. “The more opportunities the data collector has to write down information, the more opportunity there is for error,” he explains.
Recognizing that automation could improve efficiency for the city’s forestry operations, parks staff developed the idea for tree-tracking software. After applying for a grant through the USDA Forestry Service Northeast Center for Urban & Community Forestry at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, the department received $17,000, allowing it to proceed.
Phelan spearheaded the development process. Guided by months of research and consultations with professional arborists, he worked with a programming consultant to produce the inventory software.
Completed last year, the resulting software is complex enough to supply specifications for bidders, yet simple enough for use by the least technically inclined user, Phelan says. It is loaded onto handheld, touch-screen devices, allowing users — whether they are in the field or taking information over the phone — to quickly record information, including a tree’s location, species, diameter and condition, and its proximity to utility lines.
The data is downloaded onto a desktop computer with the press of a button. The resulting database of standardized tree information can be searched easily to assist staff in identifying and prioritizing maintenance needs.
The software can be integrated with a geographic information system to map a community’s urban forest. With that capability, forestry managers can easily identify trends — such as disease outbreaks or tree density — that might otherwise be missed.
Springfield’s Parks Department is in the process of securing a second grant that will allow it to develop a scheduling component for the inventory software. With that component, maintenance will be scheduled automatically when handheld data is downloaded.
To obtain the Mobile Community Tree Inventory System, visit www.umass.edu/urbantree/palm.